In education, the term voice refers the values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds of the people in a district, school, or school community—especially students, teachers, parents, and local citizens—as well as the degree to which those values, opinions, beliefs, and perspectives are considered, included, listened to, and acted upon when important decisions are being made in a district or school. The most common variations are student voice, teacher voice, and parent voice.
It should be noted that while the concept of voice is often presented in the singular and applied to diverse groups, such as teachers or parents, these groups rarely represent a unified body of values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds—it may be more accurate to say that “voices” are being represented, listened to, and acted upon. That said, the concept of voice—as both a philosophy and reform strategy—is usually sensitive to, inclusive of, and predicated on diversity, including individual, racial, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity.
While the inclusion of voice may take a wide variety of forms in schools, there are a few main types of voice:
- Formal: When voice is formalized or institutionalized, school governance and organizational systems may be reconfigured to include teacher, student, and parent voices in leadership roles or major operational and educational decisions. A few common examples include parent-teacher associations (or parent-teacher-student associations), student councils, leadership teams, and student, teacher, or parent representatives who are elected to school boards or sit on official school committees. For a related discussion, see shared leadership.
- Informal: When voice is informal, school leaders may take the opinions of students, teachers, and parents under advisement, but there is usually no formal obligation to act on their opinions or to include them in official leadership roles and decisions. A few common examples include administrative “open-door” policies, open-invitation community forums, and surveys of students, parents, and teachers.
- Instructional: Educators also use the concept of voice in reference to the instruction of students. In these cases, teachers may give students a “voice” in the instructional process by modifying what and how they teach so that students can pursue personal interests or career aspirations. For example, students may be able to write an essay or create a short video documentary, depending on which mode of expression they prefer, or they may be able to research a topic from the standpoint of their familial or cultural background, among other options. For more detailed discussions, see differentiation, learning pathways, and personalized learning.
- Cultural: Educators also use the concept of voice when discussing the presentation of academic material or the perspectives reflected in a text or other learning resource. In these cases, voice may refer to the cultural, racial, or political perspectives that are either present or absent in educational resources such textbooks or tests. Because many historical texts used in schools are written from a Eurocentric standpoint, for example, teachers may choose to present the perspectives and historical accomplishments of prominent women and people of color. Similarly, English teachers may choose works of literature from outside the Western literary canon so that students are learning from authors who are not exclusively white and male, or so that the texts speak to the cultural backgrounds of the minority or immigrant students in a class, for example. For related discussions, see multicultural education and test bias.
- Evaluative: Student and parent voice may also be considered in the evaluation of teachers, school leaders, and schools. For example, students may be surveyed about the effectiveness of their teachers, and the survey results could be factored in to job-performance evaluations. Some districts may have “parent councils” that advise school leaders and function similarly to school boards, and students and parents may also be involved in the selection and hiring process of new teachers and administrators.
As both a philosophical stance and a school-improvement strategy, the concept of voice in education has grown increasingly popular in recent decades. Generally speaking, voice can be seen as an alternative to more hierarchical forms of governance in which school administrators may make unilateral, executive decisions with little or no input from students, teachers, and parents. Voice is also predicated on the belief or recognition that a school will be more successful—e.g., that teachers will be more effective and professionally fulfilled, that students will learn and achieve more, and that parents will feel more confidence in the school and more involved in their child’s education—if school leaders both consider and act upon the values, opinions, beliefs, and perspectives of the people in a school and community. The common phrases “honoring student voice” or “honoring teacher voice” generally refer to this conviction or to the process of including various “voices.” While the degree to which voice is both solicited and valued can vary considerably from school to school, educators are increasingly embracing the concept in both leadership and instructional decisions.
The following descriptions provide a brief overview of a few representative ways in which voice might intersect with efforts to improve schools:
- Student voice: Historically, student councils and other forms of student-led government were the most common channels for students to share their opinions and viewpoints, but many of these opportunities did not allow students to make authentic contributions to the leadership of a school. Increasingly, more school districts now have voting or nonvoting student seats on the school board, and some states even elect student representatives to the state board of education. Students may also be asked to serve on a formal committee, such as a school-improvement committee, or participate in the hiring of a new superintendent, principal, or teacher. In addition to taking on leadership roles in a school, student voice is playing a larger role in instructional decisions. Students may be involved in selecting education materials, or they may be given more choices over learning content, products, and processes in the classroom (which educators consider to be a form of student voice). In addition, students may write stories for their school or community newspapers, and they may blog about their opinions about and experiences in school.
- Teacher voice: In public schools, it is now more common for teachers to play a role in school-leadership decisions, and administrators are more likely to solicit and act upon teacher concerns and viewpoints than in the past. Historically, teacher unions and academic departments, which typically have chairpersons with defined leadership responsibilities, have been the most common channels through which teachers participated in school governance. In recent years, however, the role of teachers in leadership and instructional decisions has expanded and diversified, and alternative governance strategies, such as shared leadership and leadership teams, are becoming more common in schools throughout the United States. Teachers are also playing a more active role in instructional decisions, including the design of school curricula and assessments, and in the selection of academic texts, learning technologies, and other educational resources. More recently, teachers have become increasingly active in voicing their concerns about teacher-performance evaluations, including the criteria used to define effective teachers and determine whether their pay scales should be based in part on student performance (for related discussions, see high-stakes test and value-added measures). Teachers may also be involved in selecting the types of professional development and training offered by a school or district, including teacher-led forms of professional development such as professional learning communities. And, of course, teachers may also share their opinions with a larger audience by serving on committees at the district, state, or national levels; by writing books, blogs, or newspaper editorials; or by taking on a leadership role in a union or professional association, such as a membership organization for teachers in a specific subject area.
- Parent voice: Historically, parent involvement in school leadership was fairly limited, consisting largely of traditional parent-teacher associations that, for example, raised money for school programs or organized school volunteers (among many other possible roles and responsibilities). In recent years, however, parents are increasingly being asked, or they are requesting, to serve on formal school committees and leadership teams, or to provide their opinions and feedback on a wide variety of issues and programs. At the elementary level, parent volunteerism in schools is quite common, although volunteerism rates tend to decline as their children age. Given their personal and emotional investment in the success of a school their child attends, parents, guardians, and family members may be more likely to run for seats on the district school board or seek local elected office. And with the advent of the online organizing and advocacy tools, and a concurrent increase in citizen journalism and activism, parents are also forming their own organizations to advocate for or fight against particular issues, such as bullying, special-needs education, or school funding, for example. In addition, parent involvement in school activities is considered particularly important for students more likely to struggle in school, such as students from lower-income or less-educated households, recently arrived immigrant or refugee students, or students with physical or learning disabilities, for example.